Biography of Charles Brockden Brown

Charles Brockden Brown was one of America's most accomplished early writers and man of letters; he is often considered the first professional American novelist, and the most important novelist preceding James Fenimore Cooper. Brown's work operates in the intellectual tradition later exploited by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Washington Irving. Brown proved very influential both to those writers and others like Percy and Mary Shelley, John Keats, and William Hazlitt.

Brown often wrote about the historical pressures of his era, such as religion, women’s rights, Lockean theories of knowledge and the senses, and political tensions. Most of his fiction operated in the gothic tradition by using supernatural mysteries, romantic heroes, and emphases on madness and the sublime.

Brown was born on January 17, 1771 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents were Elijah Brown, a prosperous Quaker merchant, and Mary Armitt Brown. Elijah sent his son to Friends' Public Latin School in Philadelphia, and following his graduation, Brown spent six years apprenticing in the law office of Alexander Wilcocks, as his parents wished.

However, the law was not for him, and between 1796 and 1800, Brown spent time in New York as well as Philadelphia. As a member of a literary and artistic circle called The Friendly Club, which was concerned with social reform and influenced by the work of British political philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Brown associated with likeminded intellectuals.

Brown published four novels during this fertile period. In 1799-1800, he cofounded and edited The Monthly Magazine and American Review. After one of his friends was killed in a yellow fever epidemic that struck New York, Brown's work took a marked change, ruminating on moral choice in the face of plague and death.

In 1800, Brown returned to Philadelphia but kept up his writing. This did not prove financially stable, so he began working in his brother’s mercantile importing firm. In 1803, he founded another magazine, The Literary Magazine and American Register.

Also in this period, Brown married Elizabeth Linn and had four children over five years. He was turned out of his Quaker faith for marrying outside of it.

Brown's oeuvre contains: seven major novels published between 1798-1801; a 1798 pamphlet on women’s rights (Alcuin: A Dialogue); and numerous short stories. His novels include: Wieland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly, Arthur Mervyn, Stephen Calvert, Clara Howard, and Jane Talbot. Fragments of his first novel, Sky-Walk; or, the Man Unknown to Himself were found but never published. In terms of his political writing, Brown published a pamphlet advocating the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and opposing Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807. He contributed a historical narrative of Napoleonic geopolitics in The American Register and General Repository of History, Politics, and Science. He also wrote Historical Sketches, which were multiple historical fictions set at the end of the revolutionary era; these were published posthumously.

In the last years of his life, he edited his magazines in relative obscurity. He died from pulmonary consumption on February 10, 1810, at the age of 39.

Study Guides on Works by Charles Brockden Brown

Charles Brockden Brown published Wieland in 1798 when he was 27 years old. After quitting a law apprenticeship in 1793, Brown established himself in New York literary circles. His fame rested partly on a pamphlet concerning women’s rights, Alcuin;...